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Mechanism of Action

SUBUTEX sublingual tablet contains buprenorphine. Buprenorphine is a partial agonist at the mu-opioid receptor and an antagonist at the kappa-opioid receptor.


Subjective Effects

Comparisons of buprenorphine to full opioid agonists such as methadone and hydromorphone suggest that sublingual buprenorphine produces typical opioid agonist effects which are limited by a ceiling effect.

Opioid agonist ceiling-effects were also observed in a double-blind, parallel group, dose-ranging comparison of single doses of buprenorphine sublingual solution (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, or 32 mg), placebo and a full agonist control at various doses. The treatments were given in ascending dose order at intervals of at least one week to 16 opioid-experienced subjects who were not physically dependent. Both active drugs produced typical opioid agonist effects. For all measures for which the drugs produced an effect, buprenorphine produced a dose-related response. However, in each case, there was a dose that produced no further effect. In contrast, the highest dose of the full agonist control always produced the greatest effects. Agonist objective rating scores remained elevated for the higher doses of buprenorphine (8-32 mg) longer than for the lower doses and did not return to baseline until 48 hours after drug administration. The onset of effects appeared more rapidly with buprenorphine than with the full agonist control, with most doses nearing peak effect after 100 minutes for buprenorphine compared to 150 minutes for the full agonist control.

Physiologic Effects

Buprenorphine in IV (2, 4, 8, 12 and 16 mg) and sublingual (12 mg) doses has been administered to opioid-experienced subjects who were not physically dependent to examine cardiovascular, respiratory and subjective effects at doses comparable to those used for treatment of opioid dependence. Compared to placebo, there were no statistically significant differences among any of the treatment conditions for blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, O2 saturation, or skin temperature across time. Systolic BP was higher in the 8 mg group than placebo (3-hour AUC values). Minimum and maximum effects were similar across all treatments. Subjects remained responsive to low voice and responded to computer prompts. Some subjects showed irritability, but no other changes were observed.

The respiratory effects of sublingual buprenorphine were compared with the effects of methadone in a double-blind, parallel group, dose ranging comparison of single doses of buprenorphine sublingual solution (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, or 32 mg) and oral methadone (15, 30, 45, or 60 mg) in non-dependent, opioid-experienced volunteers. In this study, hypoventilation not requiring medical intervention was reported more frequently after buprenorphine doses of 4 mg and higher than after methadone. Both drugs decreased O2 saturation to the same degree.



Plasma levels of buprenorphine increased with the sublingual dose of SUBUTEX sublingual tablet (Table 3). There was wide inter-patient variability in the sublingual absorption of buprenorphine, but within subjects the variability was low. Both Cmax and AUC of buprenorphine increased in a linear fashion with the increase in dose (in the range of 4 to 16 mg), although the increase was not directly dose-proportional.

Table 3: Pharmacokinetic Parameters of Buprenorphine and Norbuprenorphine after the sublingual administration of SUBUTEX sublingual Tablet

Dose Analyte Mean SD Cmax (ng/mL) Tmax (h) AUCinf (h•ng/mL) t½ (h)
2 mga Buprenorphine Mean 1.25 1.84 10.93 31.66
SD 0.584 0.62 3.945 12.66
Norbuprenorphine Mean 0.301 2.36 12.39 39.28
SD 0.127 2.75 4.526 20.85
8 mgb Buprenorphine Mean 2.88 1.28 28.39 35.01
SD 1.14 0.46 10.22 14.7
Norbuprenorphine Mean 1.38 1.75 50.18 44.33
SD 0.752 2.11 22.61 19.27
16 mgc Buprenorphine Mean 4.70 1.42 47.09 36.51
SD 2.16 0.50 20.03 13.99
Norbuprenorphine Mean 2.65 1.52 92.31 40.35
SD 1.62 1.34 34.74 12.07
a Source: Study Report 20-A78-AU
b Source: Study Report 20-276-SA
c Source: Study Report 20-A79-AU


Buprenorphine is approximately 96% protein bound, primarily to alpha and beta globulin.


Buprenorphine undergoes both N-dealkylation to norbuprenorphine and glucuronidation. The N-dealkylation pathway is mediated primarily by CYP3A4. Norbuprenorphine, the major metabolite, can further undergo glucuronidation. Norbuprenorphine has been found to bind opioid receptors in-vitro; however, it has not been studied clinically for opioid-like activity


A mass balance study of buprenorphine showed complete recovery of radiolabel in urine (30%) and feces (69%) collected up to 11 days after dosing. Almost all of the dose was accounted for in terms of buprenorphine, norbuprenorphine, and two unidentified buprenorphine metabolites. In urine, most of buprenorphine and norbuprenorphine was conjugated (buprenorphine, 1% free and 9.4% conjugated; norbuprenorphine, 2.7% free and 11% conjugated). In feces, almost all of the buprenorphine and norbuprenorphine were free (buprenorphine, 33% free and 5% conjugated; norbuprenorphine, 21% free and 2% conjugated).

Buprenorphine has a mean elimination half-life from plasma ranging from 31 to 35 hours.

Drug-drug interactions

CYP3A4 Inhibitors and Inducers: Subjects receiving SUBUTEX sublingual tablet should be monitored if inhibitors of CYP3A4 such as azole antifungal agents (e.g., ketoconazole), macrolide antibiotics (e.g., erythromycin) or HIV protease inhibitors and may require dose-reduction of one or both agents. The interaction of buprenorphine with all CYP3A4 inducers has not been studied, therefore it is recommended that patients receiving SUBUTEX sublingual tablet be monitored for signs and symptoms of opioid withdrawal if inducers of CYP3A4 (e.g., phenobarbital, carbamazepine, phenytoin, rifampicin) are co-administered [see DRUG INTERACTIONS].

Buprenorphine has been found to be a CYP2D6 and CYP3A4 inhibitor and its major metabolite, norbuprenorphine has been found to be a moderate CYP2D6 inhibitor in in-vitro studies employing human liver microsomes. However, the relatively low plasma concentrations of buprenorphine and norbuprenorphine resulting from therapeutic doses are not expected to raise significant drug-drug interaction concerns.

Clinical Studies

Clinical data on the safety and efficacy of SUBUTEX were derived from studies of buprenorphine sublingual tablet formulations, with and without naloxone, and from studies of sublingual administration of a more bioavailable ethanolic solution of buprenorphine.

SUBUTEX tablets were studied in 1834 patients; SUBOXONE tablets (buprenorphine with naloxone) in 575 patients, and buprenorphine sublingual solutions in 2470 patients. A total of 1270 women received buprenorphine in those clinical trials. Dosing recommendations are based on data from one trial of both tablet formulations and two trials of the ethanolic solution. All trials used buprenorphine in conjunction with psychosocial counseling as part of a comprehensive addiction treatment program. There were no clinical studies conducted to assess the efficacy of buprenorphine as the only component of treatment.

In a double-blind placebo- and active-controlled study, 326 heroin-addicted subjects were randomly assigned to either SUBOXONE sublingual tablets, 16/4 mg per day; SUBUTEX sublingual tablets, 16 mg per day; or placebo sublingual tablets. For subjects randomized to either active treatment, dosing began with one 8 mg SUBUTEX on Day 1, followed by 16 mg (two 8 mg tablets) of SUBUTEX on Day 2. On Day 3, those randomized to receive SUBOXONE sublingual tablets were switched to the combination tablet. Subjects randomized to placebo received one placebo tablet on Day 1 and two placebo tablets per day thereafter for four weeks. Subjects were seen daily in the clinic (Monday through Friday) for dosing and efficacy assessments. Take-home doses were provided for weekends. Subjects were instructed to hold the medication under the tongue for approximately 5 to 10 minutes until completely dissolved. Subjects received counseling regarding HIV infection and up to one hour of individualized counseling per week. The primary study comparison was to assess the efficacy of SUBOXONE sublingual tablets and SUBUTEX sublingual tablets individually against placebo sublingual tablet. The percentage of thrice-weekly urine samples that were negative for non-study opioids was statistically higher for both SUBOXONE sublingual tablets and SUBUTEX sublingual tablets than for placebo sublingual tablets.

In a double-blind, double-dummy, parallel-group study comparing buprenorphine ethanolic solution to a full agonist active control, 162 subjects were randomized to receive the ethanolic sublingual solution of buprenorphine at 8 mg/day (a dose which is roughly comparable to a dose of 12 mg per day of SUBUTEX sublingual tablets), or two relatively low doses of active control, one of which was low enough to serve as an alternative to placebo, during a 3-10 day induction phase, a 16-week maintenance phase and a 7-week detoxification phase. Buprenorphine was titrated to maintenance dose by Day 3; active control doses were titrated more gradually.

Maintenance dosing continued through Week 17, and then medications were tapered by approximately 20%-30% per week over Weeks 18-24, with placebo dosing for the last two weeks. Subjects received individual and/or group counseling weekly.

Based on retention in treatment and the percentage of thrice-weekly urine samples negative for non-study opioids, buprenorphine was more effective than the low dose of the control, in keeping heroin addicts in treatment and in reducing their use of opioids while in treatment. The effectiveness of buprenorphine, 8mg per day was similar to that of the moderate active control dose, but equivalence was not demonstrated.

In a dose-controlled, double-blind, parallel-group, 16-week study, 731 subjects were randomized to receive one of four doses of buprenorphine ethanolic solution: 1 mg, 4 mg, 8 mg, and 16 mg. Buprenorphine was titrated to maintenance doses over 1-4 days and continued for 16 weeks. Subjects received at least one session of AIDS education and additional counseling ranging from one hour per month to one hour per week, depending on site.

Based on retention in treatment and the percentage of thrice-weekly urine samples negative for non-study opioids, the three highest tested doses were superior to the 1 mg dose. Therefore, this study showed that a range of buprenorphine doses may be effective. The 1 mg dose of buprenorphine sublingual solution can be considered to be somewhat lower than a 2 mg tablet dose. The other doses used in the study encompass a range of tablet doses from approximately 6 mg to approximately 24 mg.

Last reviewed on RxList: 1/10/2012
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.


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